by Marilyn McHarg, General Director - MSF Canada
The International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Sudanese president Omar al Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity this week, prompting him to vow that he would not to kneel to western colonialists. With that, he expelled 13 humanitarian aid organizations from Darfur, including some teams working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). To add insult to injury, he falsely accused us of collaborating with the ICC and revoked the country licenses we need to operate in certain parts of Darfur. It is absurd to think that an organization like MSF would collaborate with the ICC. We simply cannot engage in judicial processes while simultaneously providing medical care in areas where the perpetrators of war reign with impunity. Like it or not, we have no choice but to distance ourselves from these legal battles. We keep our focus solely on our humanitarian aid. Our security hinges on this, as do the lives of our patients. Despite our strictly medical focus, a few months ago the government of Sudan forced MSF to stop a mental health counseling program in south Darfur out of suspicion that we could report evidence of state-sponsored crimes to the ICC. Our teams repeatedly explained that we were not linked in any way to the ICC, and they reinforced our professional commitment to patient confidentiality. Officials insisted, nonetheless, on ceasing our vital medical intervention to help camp dwellers suffering traumatic stress. Since 2003, the people of Darfur have suffered the direct and indirect effects of war. As many as 2.7 million people have been displaced. Up to 300,000 have lost their lives. At different points in the conflict many people have been trapped in camps because of the risks beyond the camp boundaries. The classic story of women risking rape while gathering firewood, in order to prevent their husbands risking death while gathering firewood, has been a brutal and harsh reminder of the violence against civilians at different points in the war. Many have endured periods where their lives were like those of prisoners in the camps, and their dependence on aid was like life support. Darfur's people have managed to survive where humanitarian assistance has been available, and to a great extent MSF has been able keep rates of death and disease in check where we have been working. We know there is a meningitis outbreak starting in Kalma Camp, home to an estimated 90,000 internally displaced people. The team had treated 25 cases and were preparing for a vaccination campaign as they waited for the Khartoum government to officially agree that the meningitis outbreak existed. That announcement had not come by the time the team was forced to leave Kalma. Proper treatment reduces the mortality rate linked with meningitis outbreaks to fewer than 10 per cent of those affected. Without treatment, anywhere between 50 and 80 per cent of those suffering from the disease will die. It's devastating to imagine how many will die. By Thursday, the Bashir government had unceremoniously shut down MSF programs that were assisting 450,000 people. The consequences may well be catastrophic. The victims of this cynical turn of events will no longer have access to basic health care, nor secondary health care including surgery, pediatrics, gynecology, obstetrics, vaccinations, and nutritional support. As a humanitarian aid organization, the best MSF can do in a conflict zone is to respond to the medical consequences of war. We simply try to save as many lives, and alleviate as much suffering, as possible in hopes of better times ahead. But, in the case of Sudan, this was not enough, and yet the Sudanese actually deserved so much more.